For Many Students, the Hardest Tests Are at Home

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Testing, testing and more testing! The standardized test has become the answer to any and all problems in U.S. education. It is considered the road to reform and the fix for the future.

Recently I retired from Fairfax County public schools after a career that spanned 40 years, several states and two European countries. I've seen the birth of student rights, the decline in parental support for teachers and the shift of accountability for student success from the students and their parents to the teachers.

Whatever the problems in education, there has been no shortage of opinions on how to solve them. Today the magic bullet is the standardized test. But testing doesn't address the main cause of student failure: the dysfunctional family. Generally, when I had a student from a stable, happy home, that student performed successfully. I'm sure that our politicians and education officials know the importance of the home environment. But it is extremely difficult to fix the family; it's much easier to focus on the school.

In Fairfax County, I taught in a high school of about 2,000 students that included almost every socioeconomic, ethnic and racial group. Unfortunately, the family baggage that many students brought to school each day also ran the gamut:

· One 15-year old boy was completely disorganized. Nothing I did seemed to help. He never had the supplies or work he needed. He lost homework assignments. The problem, I later learned, was his definition of home. He changed residence twice every school week. His mother was a social worker, his father a psychologist. And a judge, years before, had sanctioned their custody agreement. He lived with one parent Friday through Monday and the other Tuesday through Thursday. That meant that every Monday and Thursday he moved.

· A sullen girl came in the day after Halloween wearing an eye-catching T-shirt. I complimented her on it, hoping to break through her tough veneer. "Yeah," she responded, "it was a peace offering. My mom partied all night in Georgetown and gave it to me when she showed up this morning." I asked who was home with her overnight; there was no one. She was 14.

· I noticed a dramatic change in the quality of work done by a bright young man who seemed happy. One day he wrote in his journal that he couldn't stop worrying about his dad. His parents had recently divorced, his mom had a boyfriend who would be spending the holidays with them, and his dad would be alone. A few days later as he was leaving class, I commented that I was sorry. And he, a tall, handsome, popular senior, burst into tears.

· A boy from El Salvador had seen his father shot to death there. Not many years later, he watched as his mother's boyfriend shot her in the stairwell of their building near our school. She survived. He continued to suffer.

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